Killer Show

(This post comes does not have a spoiler alert, by the way, even though it does discuss the popular podcast ‘Serial’. If you are part-way through or keep meaning to get round to listening to it, it may give you some idea of the direction the podcast takes, but I’m not going into a great deal of depth as to what happens in the podcast. I’m more interested in how and why the reporter behind the podcast does what she does. For that reason, the post will make a bit more sense to people who have heard the show).

Let me start by saying that I love Sarah Koenig’s ‘Serial’ podcast, and like many other fans, I’m now eagerly awaiting the last episode in the season.

I love the podcast in spite of Koenig’s folksiness, which sounds forced to me, and I love it in spite of the way she pronounces ‘swathe’ as if it rhymes with ‘moth’.

Mispronunciation is one thing, but Koenig’s persona in the podcast raises a set of issues that I have been reflecting on in terms of how academic historians do research and present their findings to various audiences. I’ve been thinking of a few ways we might learn from Koenig and a few things that I find really problematic in what she does.

After all, Koenig is essentially doing historical research. She uses trial records, newspaper reports, and oral interviews to try to reconstruct what ‘really’ happened the day that Hae Min Lee was tragically murdered, and what happened in the days and weeks following her death. Like an historian she grapples with the gaps in what it is possible to find out, and tries to stitch them into some kind of coherent narrative.

But consider how different her podcast is from what an academic historian would normally do.

There are things we (historians) could learn from this. The fact that people are willing to crowd-fund research that they think is important. The fact that the podcast-website-combination formula can generate huge amounts of traffic and interest, if the publication is worth it. The fact that a great many people care not simply about this tragic murder case, but about how a reporter, or the police, or an historian go about researching what ‘really’ happened, how these different kinds of researchers grapple with the weaknesses of memory, the absences of evidence, the quandaries of motive.

I like that Koenig puts herself in to the story. I often argue with other historians, even ones who I consider to be adventurous, experimental, about the value of talking about ourselves in the history we write. In my memory, the argument always comes down to whether this is merely self-indulgence, and distracts from the importance of what we research.

But I think Koenig’s persona and strategy in her podcast raises a different set of issues to do with putting ourselves in.

I often annoy my partner when we are watching murder mysteries together by guessing what is going to happen, who the murderer is, that kind of thing. (I actually think I’m pretty good at it: murder mystery writers like a good story too much, and as someone trained as both an historian and a folklorist to interpret, recognize, and question narratives of history and narratives in history, I think I see them coming…)

One of the key tricks to working out who has something to hide is when a character’s motives are opaque. If you don’t know why someone is doing something, then there is something wrong.

There’s only person in the ‘Serial’ podcast whose motives are undisclosed: Sarah Koenig.

Think about it. Time and time again, Koenig makes comments about how she isn’t a qualified psychologist, and isn’t trying to diagnose the various players in the all-too-real drama, or isn’t a lawyer, and can’t be responsible for re-opening the case against Adnan Syed. She’s just a darn curious reporter who can’t believe this nice guy would do it!

And yet time and time again, she speculates about Adnan’s mental state, about what happened that day, about what happened afterwards. She denies being an expert, then provides her opinion anyway (always being careful, of course, not to libel anyone involved).

Why?

Well, let me put this as gently as possible. Like all writers, I think Koenig wants recognition. She’s making this show because she wants to be famous, not because she thinks she can (or indeed should) free Adnan Syed from prison. And, as the Guardian recently pointed out, that makes the show entertainment playing with real people’s lives.

It reminds me of the terrible ways the British press (and not always just the tabloids) have treated high profile child abduction cases or murder investigations: the McCanns, dragged over the coals for what happened when their young daughter disappeared on holiday, or Chris Jefferies, wrongly accused of killing Joanna Yeates, just because he looked ‘odd’.

Come Thursday, I may be proved very wrong, but I have a strong feeling that Koenig isn’t going to provide any closure. Since the podcasts appear in real-time, as it were, the general public already know that Adnan Syed is appealing his conviction based on the fact that his counsel failed to follow up important leads in his defense. But since this is real time, we also know that he is still in prison. Sarah Koenig can’t set him free, and neither can the c.1.5 million people who have listened to each podcast. Neither do I think that Koenig is going to provide evidence Syed really did do it, despite that suggestive title (I mean come on! ‘Serial’? Really?). Koenig is going to leave us wanting more, which is what good entertainers do.

And when I look back at the series as a whole, I see this pattern throughout. She has used the narrative arcs of each episode and the whole series to lead listeners down the garden path, hinting at different points that Siyed could be a psychopath, that someone else probably did it (without – libel alert! – saying who) and so on. Each episode has been powered not so much by a driving argument, as a driving question, but the questions don’t (yet) add up to a satisfactory answer. They are like a kaleidoscope of missing pieces.

So, if I think historians could learn a lot of positive lessons from Koenig’s format, from the interest people show in a case that is both historical and current, I also think we can learn a lot of negative lessons about prioritizing interest over importance, curiosity over expertise.

Great entertainment, bad history?

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